Monday, January 13, 2014

Will this scene offend my reader? Jo Wanmer's dilemma.

As Christian writers, in editor mode, there are many questions that challenge us and our manuscripts. Today, I want to look at one set of those questions. 

'Will this content be acceptable to my readers?'
'Will this passage offend? ’
‘Should I draw a veil over the stark reality of this scene?'

The answer is determined by another question. Who are my readers? 
I write for the mature adult market, for mostly women who are interested in seeing life’s big issues discussed and resolved. But am I writing for the Christian market?

I try to write every word with the writer’s mantra, ‘show, don't tell’ in mind. I can visualize the action as I write. The settings are so clear I know when the character turns right or left. My hope is the reader can see it as well. But I also want my reader to relate to, if not experience, the protagonist’s emotions, the raw pain and the deep joys. Here in lies my dilemma. In my efforts to 'show' is my writing still acceptable to the Christian market?

Recently I followed an interesting, online post discussing acceptable content in Christian writing. Readers stated that, once offended by content, they will never read that author again. How concerned should I be about that comment? Can I afford to lose a section of my potential readership? 

Because the Christian readership in Australia is so small, should I try to be inoffensive to every sector of the market?  But if I write to satisfy the lowest common denominator, I fear my book will lose its impact. Surely it is tragic to gloss over the most compelling scenes, missing the opportunity for powerful writing, risking frustrating one half of my readership to avoid offending the other half.

Take for instance the tricky area of sexual abuse. Some readers don't want such obscenities to be mentioned, considering it unnecessary content for Christian fiction. Others can cope, providing the book only details the shaking of bushes in the park, or the resulting emotions. Francene Rivers, in her excellent book, ‘The Atonement Child’, shows a stranger grabbing the protagonist in the dark. The next scene is written from the police's POV. The reader is protected from the experience.  That method works well in this instance, but is it right for every occasion? 

 'A Novel Idea', a book of advice on writing inspirational fiction, tells the author to shut the bedroom door. Let the reader know what is happening, but please, spare the details. In others words, 'tell, don't show’. This is my dilemma. If we are honest, many of life's big struggles revolve around sexual issues. I want to be able to talk about them. I want my writing to bring God into these areas, bringing healing and wholeness. 

I believe we can go there without being explicit or obscene.  But where is the balance? 

Wendy Francis commented about this topic, when speaking at the launch of Though the Bud be Bruised.  She thanked me for showing her reality without leaving behind yucky feelings and images. This comment has been very helpful to me. 

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story for a competition. The setting was the year 2032 and the theme was social issues.  I told God I would enter if He gave me a really good idea. And He did. The story fell into my mind about two days before the deadline. The judges weren't impressed but I love the crazy, edgy story. It speaks of bravery, war, seduction and subterfuge. I sold a few rough copies at the book launch of Though the Bud be Bruised. Some people loved it, but another reader asked how I could call myself a Christian and write such content. She refused to read my book. Yet I know God was happy with that writing!
  
A few Christian readers don't want to read 'Though the Bud be Bruised' because it deals with sexual abuse. Many others have written letters thanking me for bringing healing to their lives. Of course, every reader makes their own choice, but it shows me, the writer,  that I can't keep everyone happy.

I have written a second book in the same genre as the first. 'El Shaddai' follows Milly's struggle to hold her family together after she is separated from Dan by a natural disaster of massive proportions.  There are life and death issues. Her adventures aren't sanctified or pretty. It exposes the raw reality of life and an active, relational God. 

But is it what my readers are looking for? My two committed Christian friends, who have read the first draft, love the story and have no objections to the content. Yet, I understand the risk a publisher will take to produce it.

Should I soften my writing to make the book safe for the Aussie Christian market? I've pondered this question long and hard. But I can't bear to weaken the powerful scenes, or remove the theme that relies on the graphic action. Having said that, I believe this book still 'shows' without leaving nasty images or feelings behind. 

Maybe I'm not a Christian writer but a Christian who writes for the general market. Maybe they will enjoy the story? God is not talked about much, but He is shown on almost every page. He has a lot to say. Maybe the world would like that?

So, my fellow writers, what should I do?
How do you navigate these questions? 

Jo Wanmer is a writer of challenging fiction. As she edits her second book, it's sequel is demanding attention, yet it is even more controversial. She lives in Brisbane with her long suffering husband, Steve, who never reads fiction.

She is so in love with her new book, that her good judgement has departed and she can't see its flaws! Hence she is looking for a limited number of critical readers for El Shaddai. If you are interested please contact her through the comments below or via Facebook..


38 comments:

  1. Great post. I find a lot of Christian fiction is "too clean" and it leaves the stories weak and uninteresting. Obviously the author/editor is trying too hard not to offend people. There are also people out there who are just looking to be offended. If we want to be true to ourselves and to the story, we need to look more at the story and whether or not that scene needs to be there. If we pray and let God lead us, I'm sure we'll write the story that needs to be told.

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    1. Thanks Melissa. I have a lot of friends that agree with you! I'm sure God leads me with my writing, as he does most of us. He has messages to present to the world in the form of fiction.

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  2. Somebody said yesterday that Jesus came to offend people. Just think of his words to the Pharisees. They were blunt and to the point. This is an issue each of us needs to talk over with God and find what works for us. Hard to think a reader would not read another book after being offended once by an author. Each of us can only write what we are called to write.

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    1. Thanks Dale. Jesus did often offend the religious. I'm sure every 'offensive' word he spoke was aimed at breaking into closed lives with His love. I appreciate that thought. IT's a good aim for a fiction writer. To break in with the love of God.

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  3. Hi Jo,
    Those are interesting questions which I've grappled with too. I think we really need to go with our gut instincts, and trust our sense of when we're verging on crossing the line. I also think that if we're going to put our heart and effort into a book, it's better to push the boundaries of that line than remain too safe for fear of offending anyone. As we all know, pleasing everyone is impossible anyway, so trying may be futile.

    I tend to wonder whether people who would be deeply offended about the content of our novels would be among the readers we're targeting anyway. My books tend to be similar to each other in many ways. So we need to be aware of when we're compromising ourselves and our messages by wanting to keep people happy who probably don't even find our books their cups of tea anyway. And I agree with what Dale said above. Imagine if Jesus had aimed to offend nobody!

    Having said all that, I found did have to re-write lots of my latest manuscript, Imogen's Chance, for various reasons. It's definitely a delicate business, but we wouldn't change it, as I'm sure you'd agree.

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    1. I'd love to see what you had to rewrite! I guess that is the point. Am I willing to rewrite the important scenes? I have read them out allowed to a few people to gauge reactions. They haven't been shocked, but I have been selective.
      I think God wants me to write a book that deals with the shocking hidden sins in the church that everyone pretends aren't there. It is time to get the ostrich's head out of the ground!
      Thanks, Paula. You always encourage me.

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  4. I think you have a certain freedom, Jo, because you obviously write in the Women's Fiction genre. That is usually stronger and readers would surely expect the author would touch on the all too common issues (sadly) affecting women today. Couching it in fiction will assure it will be read also. Why leave it to the Non Fiction books which many readers wouldn't choose to get for themselves.

    You may be touching on something that's been buried deep in a reader's psyche and as a Christian writer you're offering God's healing to that person's hurt soul. If you feel the Holy Spirit's leading (a holy OK in this) then go ahead carefully and wisely.

    That's just my point of view!

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    1. Love your point of view, Rita! Thanks. Lets push out the good news in fiction!

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  5. I think this is an important issue Jo. I believe there is a variety of Christian readers, who can be discriminating about the books they want to read. As long as the blurb is clear about what kind of issues may be addressed, I think we can leave it to them to decide. Even though we might cut out some Christian readers, we may well pick up other readers who will be moved and challenged by our writing. In fact that would be my preference, rather than avoiding important issues because some readers may be offended. I also agree with Dale. Jesus didn't avoid offending people when he has something important to say.

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    1. Thanks Carol. I know there are readers out there that are hungry for this style of writing. The question is, how do we find them?

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  6. What a great blog Jo. I've been interested when I've seen this topic come up in other discussions. Everyone seems to have such a different opinion. But I think if we're true to writing what God has laid on our hearts, that will guide us. It would be very hard to write authentically about a sensitive issue if we were worrying who'd be offended at each point along the way. I love Dale's comment about Jesus. I can't really imagine him thinking, "Mmm ... I'd better leave that point out of my next sermon or the Pharisees might be offended". I also like the point about showing the reality without leaving that yucky feeling. Can be a difficult line though. I can also appreciate that some people might not like to read a book with certain content for different reasons, but that doesn't mean the story shouldn't be told in that way. Good on you for dealing with the gritty aspects of life Jo. You're being a blessing to many who need to hear your message.

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    1. Thanks Nola. What an how encouraging you are! I'm so enjoying this writing. Hoping readers will enjoy it too.

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  8. Your book sounds great. I'd love to read it. I think if books try to avoid the grittiness of life, they run the risk of coming across as cheesy. Francine Rivers doesn't avoid the difficult topics (I read her trilogy last year which contains themes of abuse and neglect) and strikes a really good balance, I think.

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    1. Yes, Debbie the Lion Series is out there. Thanks for reminding me about them. Maybe I should read them again, though I don't think my writing is as edgy as that. I think Francene's early books are better. I wonder if she has changed her writing for the conservative Christian market?

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  9. Great blog Jo. And great questions to think about. I think the answer is difficult. And yet simple. I think each of us Christian writers need to go to God with this dilemma. We live to an Audience of One. When we please God - that's what matters. I've just been studying Acts - where Peter and John tell the Sanhedrin that they need to judge for themselves if they should obey God or man.

    I think that's the secret. If you are convinced that that's how God has led you to write - go for it! God will take care of the rest. Is that simplistic? I think not. I believe that the way forward in any sphere of our Christian walk is pleasing God. And trusting Him with the rest. Each of us will write differently and as we are called to. The harvest is His problem. And we can trust Him.

    Delighted to hear of the way you are writing so freely this year - sounds like there are lots of books in you waiting to come out and bless the world as your first one did. Go for it!

    Blessings,
    Anusha

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    1. Thanks Anusha. I do believe the book was Spirit led. On one occasion the protagonist was trapped in a hut. As the book is written in her point of view I found myself limited re story line. I waited two days, asking God if I needed to use the back space button to get her out of there. But no! She was there for a reason. What an adventure it has been!
      Yes, it is good to be writing. Only had one hospitalization in 3 months. So so thankful.

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    2. Delighted on both counts - the writing and only 1 hospitalisation in 3 months. That's wonderful news. May this new year continue to blossom your writing and bring healing to your grand daughter. xox Rejoicing with you Jo!

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  10. Great post Jo.

    You say "Surely it is tragic to gloss over the most compelling scenes, missing the opportunity for powerful writing, risking frustrating one half of my readership to avoid offending the other half."

    And I think this is part of the issue - that many Christian readers do want edgier fiction that is not afraid to grapple with real gritty issues - in a sensitive way which isn't voyeuristic or just aimed to titillate - but to, as you say, "bring God into these areas, bringing healing and wholeness. ". In fact, I've a hunch that many Aussie Christians don't read Christian fiction because they find it too sanitized. And if this is true of many Christian readers it is even more true of non-Christians (if we as writers, wish to push through the bubble). I'm not knocking Christian fiction - but I do think we need to think about which audience we are aiming for. Of course, publishers come into this as well - and what they are willing to publish - are they willing to build up one market - at the risk of offending the one they have.

    BTW, I found The Bud Be Bruised - honest and hard hitting, willing to dig deep but never distasteful.

    And I would love to read your new novel El Shaddai. I can message my email on FB if you like.

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  11. I think it depends on whether you see your writing as ministry or as a God given way of making a living. If it is a ministry you are free to write what God has put in your heart and believe that God will ensure it reaches its intended audience, even if that audience is small. If you are writing to make a living then you need to be more sensitive to the market.

    I see my writing as ministry and the book I'm writing is somewhat controversial. If a publisher asked me to tone down a section here or there I would certainly be open to that, if I could do it without losing the overall impact. However, I won't be toning down the whole book.

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    1. Thanks Susan. I don't know any writers in Aus that make a living from writing Christian novels. But is that because we do tome it down?
      At the moment, I'm writing out of pleasure, but I know that God wants to send messages out. The question is how to get a wide readership so the message is heard?
      All the best with your writing.

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  12. Good luck with that, Jo. It is a conundrum that bothers a number of us Christian writers. It is true that some scenes need to be shown, and the language sometimes is messy, but it is also true that Christian readers pick up Christian novels so they can be encouraged, entertained and inspired without feeling contaminated. I guess we have to make the hard call of who it is we are really trying to reach. I like an easy read story, but it doesn't pack the punch that is sometimes required for these really tough subjects. Prayerfully and carefully proceed.

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    1. Thanks Meredith. I appreciate your experience and advice. 'Feeling contaminated' is am interesting yardstick. I would never write anything that leaves me feeling contaminated and I do't like reading it myself. Yet there must be a place in the middle. This book is a fast read, but I don't know if it would be classified as light.

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  13. As a reader I want to know if there is edgier content on the blurb so I am not blindsided when reading that way I can decide if I want to read the book, and I am one of the readers you are talking about that probably will not buy the book. There are others like me and we are entitled to our choices. This doesn't mean there are not others who will buy the book. There may be a smaller reader base in Australia but we all have different preferences. I am not a big reader of Women's fiction and I don't like heavy suspense and will tend to buy more Historical books. Where as another reader will hate historical and want Women's Fiction. To lump all Aussie readers into the same basket is wrong. So you will not have all Aussie readers liking the same books so you need to be looking for your reader group and not worrying about readers like me.
    Also I am own who if offended by a book and other books are the same vain will probably not read another book by that author but as a reader isn't that my choice?

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    1. I agree with Jenny. I can choose what I want to read, and I rely on the publisher blurb (and honest reviews) to tell me if the book contains anything I might not want to read. Last year I passed on reading Into the Free by Julie Cantrell, which ended up winning two Christy Awards. Loads of people thought it was a brilliant book. I read the first three chapters and knew I wouldn't like it. That doesn't make me - or them - wrong.

      I read for entertainment. If I've had a busy or difficult day, I want to read light and fluffy. Other days, I will be happy to read something with a bit more depth. Some days I want the Italian food available, other days I'm happy for quick-and-easy microwave lasagne.

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  14. Jenny. I agree. It is all about reader choice and there are a variety of genres. That is the point! You are the consumer. We are the supplier. You make the choices. But I think that you make the point that, as authors, we can't write for every Aussie reader so it is silly trying. It makes our potential market smaller.
    Yet if we look to the US for publication the flavor of the book has to change again.
    As a reader I love some Australian historical fiction, but my 'good book' is more a saga that deals with a variety of real life problems. And I too won't return to an author that has seriously disappointed me. Which is why I don't read Karen Kingsbury! I guess we are all created differently, so we all read differently.
    Thanks for weighing into the debate.

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  15. Not sure why it didn't work but this is what I wanted to say...

    I think this dilemma can be fixed in a couple of ways:
    1. Choose to be true to yourself and accept that can't please everyone and that you will only feel truly satisfied if you write the way it works for you. Having said that, there are so many ways to tell a story that can bring the same impact and something it is what is not said that can be most effective. For example, film makers don't show the whole scene, they focus on an aspect and they imply the action and allow people to fill in the blanks themselves.
    2. Adopt a pseudonym then no-one will know who wrote it, so it won't affect your brand.
    3. Make a decision about who you are targeting. In marketing there is this notion that polarising your audiences actually is not a bad thing because you end up with those who really do love and support what you write and it is easier to identify them and to directly market to them. This is what niche marketing is all about.
    4. Choose to only write stuff that your religious framework permits.

    I have recently released a book in the general market under a pseudonym because I realised that there may be some people who are offended by what I have chosen to include in that novel. The interesting thing I am discovering is that the people that I have had the guts to show the book to who I would consider to be inside the 'religious thinking' group have all said they didn't mind. Now that surprised me a lot. And it made me wonder if perhaps I was pre-disqualifying people who may have been qualified leads for sales of my book? Sometimes we can project our own religious thinking onto others as well. After all, there is nothing in my book that you can't see on the television any night of the week.

    So at the end of the day, Jo, if you think that is a necessary event or emotion that helps the reader to get a better connection and understanding of your character and plot, I say go for it. But don't be afraid to consider ways you can present that bitter pill so that it is palatable without killing it. :)

    Hope that is helpful.

    Hayley

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  16. Thanks Hayley. There is nothing in my writing that I'm not willing to publish under my name. It is no way offensive, it just doesn't meet the tight criteria of some areas of the Christian market.
    I agree re knowing your market in advertising to that - but I guess like most Aussie writers we would like to access a bigger pool. And I guess that is Amazon!

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  17. Jo, I'm so thankful for your courage and honesty, both in this blog post and in your book. You inspire me! The past (and perhaps present) pressures from within church and Christian circles to keep silent about sexual abuse out of some misguided understanding of 'abstaining from the appearance of evil' has caused far more offence and damage to our collective witness to the power of Christ to bring repentance, forgiveness and healing than your honest, sensitive, realistic representations could ever cause. The very fact that you ask the hard questions of yourself as you draft and edit, confirms to me that your heart is in the right place and your goal as a writer is to shine the light of God's love, mercy and truth in a corrupt and hurting world. Keep doing that.

    Cathie.

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    1. Cathie, you're a honey. Thanks for your encouragement.

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  18. Hi Jo, Thanks so much for writing this blog post. You pose very challenging and honest questions. You are very brave to put them out there and let others tell you how they feel. Your post and all the comments have given me a lot to think about. I don't have anything to add to the conversation at the present but I am very interested to be reading about how others are tackling these issues as I begin to think and address these things myself.

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  19. Its bugged me all night but What or who are the Lowest Common Denominator? is that readers like me who are very conservative?

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    1. Jenny, I love maths so use such terms! It means that anything that could be offensive to anyone is removed. There are lots of different readers. You may be conservative, others have religious beliefs that affect their tastes, others like action, others don't..... It is not a term that refers to any particular type of reader, but rather satisfying every readers tastes.
      I think as writers we can try and do that to appeal to a bigger pool of readers, but, if we are honest with ourselves, it is an impossible goal.
      I hope I haven't offended you, Jenny. I respect your reading choices. I suspect you have read many more books than I have and so I respect your knowledge. Your addition to any debate is important and insightful. I would be very interested in your honest feedback about this book at some stage, even though it isn't your preferred genre.

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    2. Thanks for the explanation Jo I just wasn't sure what you meant by it. I know I am more conservative than some as I really hate swearing in a christian book and I if it happens several times in a book I will stop reading that author. I am very uncomfortable with sexual content and do avoid it also, I have read edgy but wouldn't call it to edgy. I have an eclectic reading style. I can handle a war book with what happens better than a horror story mainly cos of what the book is about. I use to read around 150 books a year its lowered cos of health issues, hard to read when you are constantly napping and sleeping. Also with the condition I have and the meds its affecting my reading vision to the point books often blur even the internet blurs at times too. I can read better with the kindle and computer cos I can change the font but I just cant concentrate for a long time. Hoping to finish my non fiction Manage your Pain book this week. been reading since the beginning of Dec.

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  20. Hi Jo, Christians live in a real world and their writing needs to reflect real world issues if it is to be of use. How to tell the story I think is a matter for our conscience before God. What we think He would want written. I find that stops me from putting in detail that is unhelpful but I am still able to convey the spiritual and emotional impact.

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  21. I hope to see more books written by Christian writers available to the general public. I surmise my writing is much like yours. I've written about abuse too, within a family, and now wonder how to find a publisher, but I hope my writing might appeal to the everyday market (meaning Christians and non-Christians alike). I mention God later in the book and readers can then see how He has walked with my character and brought her through tough circumstances, akin to a testimony. When I set out to write, I wrote the book for myself, without thinking of the readers, because it was a story I felt needed to be told, but now I'm unsure whether I will have any readers. Thanks for this blog post as it's given me much to think about.

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  22. Jo, I applaud your desire to be honest in tackling difficult topics. For those christians who want sanitized fiction there are any number of such books available. But only christians will read them. There are thousands of readers out there who will not read them. Like you, I want to present a redemptive point of view in life's hard situations that will speak to people who will not be exposed to it any where else. May you continue to write powerful, anointed, and real stories. Blessings, Rhonda Pooley.

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  23. Shirley Anne. Great to read your comment. It you see this please contact me through my blog. It would be good to share. I can't find you on facebook.
    thanks Jennifer and Rhonda for your encouragement.

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